I Just Love the World-Building: Jeff Lemire Discusses His Sci-Fi Opus ‘Descender’
In his career in comics, Jeff Lemire hasn't shied away from building worlds. Essex County, Sweet Tooth, Trillium, and even his work at Valiant Comics have all presented readers with fully realized, fleshed-out settings. But Descender, Lemire's Image Comics science fiction series with painted art by Dustin Nguyen, may be his most ambitious project.
The series focuses on a child-like robot in a war-torn galaxy full of mistrust and betrayal. It wrapped up its first six-issue arc last week, so we talked to Lemire about his plans for the next arc, the mystery behind the destructive force known as the Harvesters, and his influences. We also touched on his new series, Plutona, which steers back to the superhero genre.
ComicsAlliance: The first arc of the book focused a lot on how humans and aliens handled the panic surrounding robots after the huge attack from the Harvesters. It looks like the second one will dig deeper into the society and culture robots that remain, the "resistance." What can you tell us about the specifics of what's coming?
Jeff Lemire: Arc two is called "Machine Moon," and the title itself is a bit of a hint. We will see the hidden home world of the Hardwire, the robot resistance. More specifically, TIM-21, Telsa, Quon and the gang will be brought there. But not all of TIM’s companions will make it that far.
We will also delve deeper into the origin of TIM-22 and what makes he and TIM-21 unique from one another and what their existence means to one another and to the larger mystery.
And on top of that we will introduce a major new character, one I am very excited about. One with links to TIM-21’s past and one who will change the course of the series completely.
CA: I've been intrigued since issue one about the choice to make TIM-21, the robot who may hold the key to figuring out what the Harvesters are all about, a child (at least in appearance). My read on it is that he's sort of an innocent in a universe of self-involved, violent, territorial characters --- robots, aliens and humans. Even the benevolent ones turn out to be frauds, kind of. They're the "adults," if you will. Is that what you were going for with the character and how you wanted the story to play out thematically?
JL: Well, I never really approach any project or story thinking of themes first, or what a certain character “represents”. Maybe other writers do, but for me, it just starts with the characters and a certain emotion I want to convey. It usually isn’t until I get deeper into a book and look back a bit that I start to see the themes etc.
Having said all of that, yes, Tim is an innocent in a war torn world. Born (or created) into a conflict older than he is. I really like writing from a child’s point of view. It’s something I’ve always loved doing.
CA: To follow up on that, I find Dr. Quon to be a really interesting character. He's not bad, per se, he just sort of takes some undeserved credit. And he pays dearly for it. Is he going to be an important character as the series continues bouncing around the various cultures of this universe?
JL: I love Quon. He’s probably my favorite character. And you’re right, I never thought o Quon as “a villain” or a bad person. He’s just made some really bad decisions and been selfish, which we all do and all are.
But in his case, those decisions cost him and the universe dearly. He’s tragic and flawed and I have a plan for him that will send on a pretty crazy path. No one will be able to anticipate where Quon ends up.
I think more than anything he’s a character looking for some kind of purpose again. He wants to be important again. And that may lead him to make good decisions, altruistic ones, or more selfish decisions. I’m not saying which.
CA: Fair enough. I'd love to hear about your sci-fi influences. There are times as I'm reading this where I feel like I see homages to different science fiction stories and settings, but there's definitely a synthesis going on here. What are some stories, movies, authors that particularly inspired you?
JL: My influences on Descender are a bit scattered. I was really into [Naoki] Urasawa’s manga Pluto last year, which is a modern retelling of the classic Astro Boy story. So that was definitely on my mind. And I was also really into Jack Kirby’s 2001 comics from the '70s, which featured the robotic character Machine Man. So these things were definitely floating around in my head.
The other thing I was really into was Dan Simmons’ novel Hyperion, which has an incredible amount of world building and really set the bar for me in terms of how much I needed to develop this galaxy and the planets if I wanted it to feel credible.
CA: That leads me to ask a little about your collaboration with Dustin Nguyen. This book has a very distinct look; almost what I'd call a sort of historical science fiction. A lot of the technology is actually very old, and it looks like it could be. Do you and Dustin collaborate on the designs? Do you include sketches in your scripts? Or does he do most of the heavy lifting there?
JL: Working with Dustin is effortless. We talk so little about the book. I write stuff, he loves it. He draws stuff, I love it. It’s not much more complicated than that. An ideal relationship built on mutual respect and two creators who have very similar storytelling priorities. So the look of Descender, the technology, the robots, the spaceships, the aliens; they originate from my world building, but he realizes them visually ... I let him do his thing.
There were a few instances where I had something specific in mind and gave a bit of direction, but never any sketches or anything. But he and I both talked a lot before starting so we had a good idea of what we wanted to do and I wrote the book with his style in mind.
CA: OK, let's get real: How long is the mystery of the Harvesters going to keep going? Do you have a time in mind to unveil their whole deal, or will you stretch it out as long as you can?
JL: Well, as soon as it feels like “I’m stretching it out” then I guess it’s time to answer it. I want the mystery to drive the story, but not at the cost of the reader. It won’t be a thing where the last page of the series will be, “Ta-daa! And that's what the Harvesters are!” It will be answered earlier than that.
You run the risk, whenever you build your story around a central mystery, of either letting it go to long, or revealing it too soon and then taking the wind out of the sails of the narrative. Truth is I have a plan for the book. I know the ending, I know all the major story points along the way. I’m confident that the journey will be worth it and when the mysteries are revealed they will be satisfying. In the end it’s about the characters and their relationships first, and the mystery is the backdrop for that.
CA: This isn't your first sci-fi book. Arguably, quite a bit of your work has sci-fi elements, but in particular, Trillium was concretely in the genre. What is it about science fiction that appeals to you as a comics genre? Do you think it's underrepresented right now?
JL: If anything I think it’s probably over-represented. There are A LOT of sci-fi comics right now. But I can’t really speak to that. All I can really talk about is why Descender was a book I wanted to do. The truth is, I just love the world-building. I love the huge cosmic backdrop and the mystery and wonder of space. I also like the allegorical nature of it. Using it as a metaphor and vehicle to reflect things in our own world.
But at the end of the day, I get a real kick out of seeing Dustin paint robots.
CA: While we're on the topic of your other books, what can you tell me about your newest series, Plutona?
JL: Plutona is the story of five kids who find the body of the world’s greatest superhero in the woods after school one day. It’s about how this discovery, and the decisions they make, effect them as a group and individually.
The book is written by Emi Lenox and I, and she is drawing it. Jordie Bellaire is coloring. It’s a five-issue series. We describe it as a kind of Stand By Me and Lord of the Flies with superheroes.
Descender #7 is on sale in November. Plutona #1 is on sale in September.